Chasing Clouds with Christina Williamson

To howl is to express myself wildly, fully, without fear or shame. When I do this, I feel fulfilled, alive, myself and open to everything life has to offer. I feel it when running with abandon down a mountain, finding that untracked bit of powder to make my turns, getting deep into the belly of a canyon. I also feel it at work.

I’m a scientist. I study small particles in our atmosphere and how they influence the climate.

So far, my work has taken me deep into Scandinavian forests, to live for weeks on end in isolated huts high in the French alps, to a giant underground laboratory in Switzerland and, most recently, to fly around the world on a NASA mission.

It’s an adventure. Once every season we take a jet-liner, remove all the seats and fill it with scientific instruments that measure what’s in the air. Then, as a team of about 30 scientists, 10 crew and 2 pilots, we fly it around the world. Arctic to Antarctic, Pacific to Atlantic, constantly scanning from just a few hundred feet above the ocean to 8 miles high up in the stratosphere. We’re looking at the background atmosphere, what’s there when humans aren’t influencing it. This will tell us a lot about how fast the climate will change and how it responds to our influence. We’re also looking to see if there is truly any pristine air out there, anything that our emissions haven’t touched? We don’t know if there is, but we’re searching the most remote corners of the globe to find out.

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The whole journey takes about a month to complete. On the way, we stop off at military bases and islands to refuel the plane, perform maintenance on the instruments and, if we’re lucky, catch some sleep. We get to see remote, beautiful and varied parts of the world. Last deployment, within a few days I went from watching sea-turtles swimming around the tiny island of Ascension in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to spotting arctic foxes in the north of Greenland.

In flight, especially when we fly just a few hundred feet above the earth, we see amazing sights, like the fjords of Greenland or icebergs off the coast of Antarctica.

It’s a challenge, mentally and physically. There’s a lot of pressure, knowing we only have one shot to get the data, there’s never been a mission like it before and there’s no re-do for a project this big. We spend months, in some cases years, in the lab beforehand preparing instruments so that they work perfectly during the mission and can capture all the data we need. There’s also the exhaustion of rapidly crossing so many time-zones, getting yourself to adjust to so much time in the air, hefting heavy equipment on and off trucks and aircraft, squeezing yourself in tiny, awkward spaces to fix an inaccessible part of the instrument on-the-fly, training your stomach not to mind the maneuvers we do each flight to calibrate our pressure and direction sensors, that make the flight feel more like a roller-coaster than jet-liner. When I finally get back to base at the end of a deployment, I feel exhausted – and happy. I know how valuable those data are, I feel proud that we’ve managed to collect it and excited to unravel the discoveries, I feel amazed at all that I have seen and witnessed.

I want the world to share in the excitement and adventure of science, and I hope that this might help us become a more caring, considerate and informed society. If people could see the layers and intricacies of the atmosphere in front of their eyes as I do on our flights, or if they could understand what it means to wait two months on top of a mountain and then finally see a process happening that we didn’t even know was possible and how that informs and changes so much, I think they would be as excited and passionate as I am about understanding our atmosphere and deciding if and how we want to influence it.

Science, especially the physical sciences remain male-dominated, and experimental work and aircraft work have some of the largest imbalance.

I recognize that as a woman in a heavily male-dominated field, I can bring about much-needed change by standing as an example and encouraging other young women to pursue careers and passions that have previously been considered off-limits to them.

In this, my writing ( is a howl through the woods, calling for others to join me.

I still love being in the mountains and the wild places to hike or ski or play. It gives me a sense of connection with nature and the wilder parts of my being. But in my work, I get to observe and study the natural world and our influence on it as humans. This roots me into my world in a more profound way than I ever could have imagined, and connects me to a purpose and an ideal larger then myself. This is my howl.


Christina Williamson is a research scientist with the Co-operative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at CU Boulder, working at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. She blogs about her adventures in atmospheric science at and tweets as @chasingcloudsCW.